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Primary Transit Network the focus of Calgary’s updated Route Ahead plan

Calgary’s Route Ahead plan has been updated, and it’s refocusing on Calgary Transit’s commitment to faster more efficient service.

The updated plan will come before the city’s Infrastructure and Planning Committee on Thursday, as part of a scheduled 10-year review. They did public engagement over the summer prior to finalizing changes to the 30-year transit plan.  

In the document are 22 changes ranging from length of the actual document to more major changes – like the explicit focus on making public transit the backbone of the “Calgary’s best future.”

One of main updates is the focus on frequency rather than coverage. Calgary Transit refers to it as the Primary Transit Network (PTN). It’s the skeletal system where trains or buses come every 10 to 15 minutes at least 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

In the public hearing during Calgary’s budget deliberations, frequency and reliability were mentioned repeatedly. It was essential to building a stronger transit ridership, many said.

David Cooper, a former senior planner with Calgary Transit, who now is a consultant, said given the resources the city has locked up in public transportation, the switch could be made within the given transpo budget.

“This is not an idea or a concept that’s requiring additional funding. It’s something that can be put forward in your budget,” he said at the time.

Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian, who sat on the Route Ahead Advisory Group, said that transit for too long has tried to be everything to everyone.

“We know that this is a constrained optimization problem,” she said.

“Having great coverage and great frequency, and great transit-oriented development, all of the above – low fares as well – It’s really hard to do.”

What do citizens want, and then go from there

Mian said one of the criticisms of the Route Ahead plan was the execution – or lack thereof – of the Primary Transit Network. It was in the original document in 2012, but never really implemented.

She said she understood Calgarians’ frustration that the service levels weren’t there – made worse by a flagging economy and pandemic impacts.

“I’m happy to see this sort of stated focus area and explicitly calling out that this is what we’re going to prioritize,” she said.

“And then, I mean, the devil is really in the implementation plan.”

The plan updates also include a broader list of key performance indicators for transit. They also fine tune customer safety and environmental safety (heat, cold) strategies. The updated plan also looks at the so-called first-mile, last-mile connections in community and the improvements that could be made there.

Mian said the city has to be clear on those solutions when connecting with the PTN, but recognized that these can often be solutions from private sector partners.

“I think that citizens are looking for outcomes and are little bit less concerned about who will always provide every outcome,” she said.

More frequency, less coverage

Ward 13 Coun. Dan McLean said he agrees with the need for more consistent transit service.  But it comes at a sacrifice for coverage. No longer will the city try to ensure some sort of bus service out to suburban communities where the population doesn’t support regular service.

McLean said his ward has some of the fastest growing new communities. These are neighbourhoods where new Calgarians are coming to live – many who will rely on Calgary Transit to get around. He cites Yorkville, Belmont and Silverado as those with rapidly expanding populations.

More mature areas like Millrise are slated to lose route coverage McLean said, servicing an area seniors population.

“There’s a lot of focus always put on the inner city, and I understand the desire to do that. But please don’t forget about the suburbs,” McLean said.

McLean said one of the city’s priorities is to create equity in citizens accessing services. He said this isn’t an equitable solution. Especially when many of the city’s new communities are denser than inner-city neighbourhoods.   He said it’s a mistake to bypass these areas for transit.

“I’m not very happy with some of the short cuts they’ve taken,” he said.

“I would like to see them be able to do both somehow. 

The city has said previously that some of these new communities may be better serviced with on-demand transit until the population base builds.

Mian said the reality is, the city can’t sustain that model. Even with a stop within a block or two of their homes, and once-an-hour service, it’s likely not meeting their transportation needs, she said.

“It’s a values based call, but I believe that we should try and be really good at the things that we’re realistically set up to be good at, and just be honest about the way that we’re already not meeting people’s expectations,” she said.

Committee members will be asked to approve the proposed changes included in the Route Ahead revision. The final plan will be presented mid 2023. They are also being asked to approved a revised capital plan.